Eats, Shoots and Dies
Last week the Supreme Court decided to hear a Second Amendment case on the D.C. handgun ban, and it sent opponents scurrying for the battle lines. On one side, Charlton Heston, Ted Nugent and the militiamen of Pennsyltucky. On the other, grammarians.
This particular case, say the grammarians, reignites an age-old debate about how many commas are actually in the Second Amendment. The number of commas has the potential to dramatically change the meaning.
The handwritten copy at the National Archives reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
But lots of folks—including the official U.S. Government Printing Office—omit the first and third commas: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
As University of Illinois English professor Dennis Baron wrote in the LA Times earlier this year, “The first comma in the Second Amendment signals a pause. At first glance, it looks like it’s setting off a phrase in apposition, but by the time you get to the second comma, even if you don’t know what a phrase in apposition is, you realize that it doesn’t do that.”
Instead, Baron says, “That second comma identifies what grammarians call an absolute clause, which modifies the entire subsequent clause.” Which basically means that the framers intended the Second Amendment to be about not guns, but militias.
Typically, the fewer commas the better, but with an argument this sound, we’ll hold onto commas like our lives depend on it.
When does a hyphen follow the word “well”? I’m always confused by this.
Don’t tell the militia, but the framers actually got this one wrong.
“Well” needs a hyphen whenever it’s part of a compound modifier (i.e., two words combining to modify the same noun): well-dressed man, well-known woman, well-written amendment. The only times compound modifiers don’t get a hyphen are after “very” and after any adverb ending in “-ly.” And when older interpretations are needed to talk down psycho right-wing gun nuts.